The obesity crisis is hard to visualize. What does it really mean when we say that the average middle-aged man in the U.S. has a BMI of 29, while in Japan, a 23.7?

Artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm came up with a simple yet effective way to illustrate the differences in obesity between the U.S. and other, healthier countries: digital images of average middle-aged men standing next to each other.

Lamm's latest project compares BMI (and height and waist measurements) of men from the U.S, Japan, the Netherlands, and France, all based on government data from each of the countries.

"To ensure that the BMI body proportions were accurate, I consulted with Matthew P. Reed, a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and an expert on body shape measurement," he explained in an email.

The men don't actually look all that different

The men don't actually look all that different

The men don't actually look all that different

2013-10-03

Shirtless Americans Next To People From Skinnier Countries Show How Fat We Are

Nothing says you've got a few pounds to lose like looking in the mirror. Here, an artist holds up a mirror to America's expanding waist line.

The obesity crisis is hard to visualize. There are maps, sure, and lots of statistics. But what does it really mean when we say that the average middle-aged man in the U.S. has a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 29, while in Japan, a 23.7?

Artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm, the man behind this visualization of New York City's income inequality, came up with a simple yet effective way to illustrate the differences in obesity between the U.S. and other, healthier countries: digital images of average middle-aged men standing next to each other.

Lamm's latest project compares BMI (and height and waist measurements) of men from the U.S, Japan, the Netherlands, and France, all based on government data from each of the countries. He says he consulted with Matthew P. Reed, "a research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and an expert on body shape measurement," to ensure the renderings were accurate.

The men don't actually look all that different--the American has a bit of a gut, but nothing that some daily exercise couldn't fix. Perhaps that's part of the point: the obesity crisis is fixable, even as it continues to get worse.

Add New Comment

30 Comments

  • I don't understand how people let themselves get overweight in the first place. This ain't rockets. It is health. And this is not something that just occurs. We do it to ourselves over long periods of time. It is not about the exercise necessarily, although the exercise is important, it is about the consumption. Why can't we just monitor our consumption(s) based on our activity levels and rid ourselves of all of this nonsense?

  • Zoe Stevens

    Because instinctively, humans are driven to binge. To consume food that will provide energy during leaner times. Except now there are no leaner times. But that instinct can be hard to overcome for some, especially those who need to eat more to get the "I'm full and feel good" feeling. Given how prevalent obesity is, I think it's clear that it's NOT as simple as "well just eat less duh".

  • Zoe Stevens

    Because instinctively, humans are driven to binge. To consume food that will provide energy during leaner times. Except now there are no leaner times. But that instinct can be hard to overcome for some, especially those who need to eat more to get the "I'm full and feel good" feeling. Given how prevalent obesity is, I think it's clear that it's NOT as simple as "well just eat less duh".

  • American in this image looks much lighter than most of the ones I see on the street. I don't think we can use a mean for something like this. Who cares if they are a couple pant sizes smaller than we are? Weight isn't a big deal until you get in the "obese" categories. As far as I know, we have a lot more of those per capita than most other countries.

  • Terry McEntire

    The American looks healthiest. You know the BMI scale was created during Reconstruction and was then lowered even more, right? All scientific evidence says "overweight" on BMI is conducive to a longer, healthier life.

  • pureabsolute

    This is more collectivist crap.. In america, we should strive to treat each person as an individual. These studies provide the government with reasons to control all of our health choices, regardless of fitness level. Ocho-Cinco loves his McDonalds even though he is 1000 times more fit than the average vegetarian.

  • Charles

    ust as in other areas America's socio-economic diversity makes comparisons such as this one highly inaccurate. If you have traveled extensively such as I have you know how difficult it is to find a health club outside of North America

  • John

    These images show the average, but they fail to show the distribution, which is where the problem is. "Average income", when it includes the income of billionaires, is likewise very misleading.

  • Charles

    That's usually true, but weight does not skew nearly as much as income. People make $40K, $400K and $4 billion. But there are not millions of 1,000 and 10,000 pound people skewing the average much from the median. In addition, the sampling is what, 125 million adult American men?

  • John

    ust as in other areas America's socio-economic diversity makes comparisons such as this one highly inaccurate. If you have traveled extensively such as I have you know how difficult it is to find a health club outside of North America

  • Charles

    These images show the average, but they fail to show the distribution, which is where the problem is. "Average income", when it includes the income of billionaires, is likewise very misleading.

  • John

    These images show the average, but they fail to show the distribution, which is where the problem is. "Average income", when it includes the income of billionaires, is likewise very misleading.

  • Consultofactus

    Just as in other areas America's socio-economic diversity makes comparisons such as this one highly inaccurate. If you have traveled extensively such as I have you know how difficult it is to find a health club outside of North America (ok, Australia and NZ also seem to have a lot of gyms as well). Even in western Europe finding a health club isn't easy and in Asia nearly impossible and the few that do exist are brutally expensive. Here in the US health clubs are plentiful. So when Americans make a point of taking care of themselves, they are at least as fit as people from the other countries mentioned in the article. Drive down any street in suburban America and you'll see people jogging - you almost never see this in Asia and only infrequently in Europe. However, when Americans do "fall off the health wagon" they seem to fall further - IMHO we corner the market for the very, very obese - which skews the numbers badly. I'm sure there are numerous factors involved in the ultra-obese population - our love of fast food being a major contributor, but there are many others that would require (as other posters suggest) something beyond simple averaging because as my Probability and Statistics professor pointed out early in the course the true but misleading fact that "the average American has 1.95 legs" (meaning that approximately 25 out of 1,000 are missing all or part of a leg).